The mid-Nineties were a particularly bad time for WWE. Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage defected to WCW, goofy characters like Doink the Clown and Tatanka felt childish and out of touch and freshly minted faces like Diesel and Lex Luger couldn't quite capture the zeitgeist or enthusiasm of the previous decade. The company had become boring, smug, bereft of star-power – and they had nobody to blame but themselves.
Meanwhile, unsatisfied diehards were in search of their pro-wrestling fix, and they found it in the bleak industrial parks of South Philadelphia. Extreme Championship Wrestling never had the funding to cross into popular culture – it was mostly broadcast in the witching hour on microscopic cable channels up and down the East Coast – but its followers were loyal and its reputation was hard-earned. ECW was violent, it was angry, it was vengeful; it was everything mainstream wrestling wasn't in the mid-Nineties. It's where the Dudley Boyz dropped their first 3D, where Rob Van Dam became a star, where Tommy Dreamer and Brian Lee wrestled a terrifying, irresponsible and utterly incredible "Scaffold Match," where Cactus Jack and Terry Funk asked for chairs and watched the ring get buried in a sea of steel. The message was clear: we don't follow the rules in ECW.
Pro wrestling eats its young, and eventually Extreme Championship Wrestling was absorbed by the bigger budgets and higher ceilings of the WWE. First-ballot hall of famers like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio all wrestled fantastic matches in ECW, but they happily signed lucrative contracts with the big show. In 2001, left without a budget or a competitive roster, ECW was forced to close its doors – leaving behind a small pile of ashes in the warehouses and gymnasiums it had conquered.
This was particularly bad news for Rob Feinstein and his company, RF Video. ECW VHS tapes – and, later, DVDs – were their primary export, and all of a sudden he needed something to sell. In 2002 he broke ground on Ring of Honor, a new Philadelphia-based promotion that served as a torchbearer for that gritty, barbed-wire tradition. In the years since, ROH has slowly but surely established itself as worthy successor to ECW, and like its forefather, has started to catch the attention of the elephant in the room.
"The major company in our business is of course the WWE – I'm not going to Voldemort them and say, 'He who has no name,' because we very much respect their organization," says Joe Koff, Ring of Honor COO. "But what's interesting is that over the last two years all their champions and key people have been Ring of Honor people. They have a developmental program, which is a fine, fine program, but where were their champions coming from?"
In 2002, at the first ever Ring of Honor show, a scruffy, 21-year-old kid from Aberdeen, Washington wrestled in a triple threat main event. His name was Bryan Danielson. Fourteen years later, he retired as Daniel Bryan, former WWE champion and arguably the brightest star in all of wrestling. In 2004, a stringy, bleached-blond weirdo named CM Punk absorbed all the punishment he could take from a nascent, terrifying Samoa Joe. The match earned an ultra-rare five stars from Dave Meltzer, and catapulted both of their careers into the stratosphere. In 2009, Tyler Black took on everyone in his path to secure the ROH belt, sparking an epic title run that would stretch deep into 2010. Today he's Seth Rollins, perhaps the most dedicated worker in the WWE. The list goes on and on. Claudio Castagnoli is now Cesaro. Kevin Steen is now Kevin Owens. A.J. Styles is now, well, A.J. Styles. He was stolen back in January and debuted on WWE television at the Royal Rumble.
This is nothing new. The entertainment business is narrow and emphasizes upwards momentum. Spoon signed with Elektra, Robert Downey Jr. became Iron Man; poaching is part of the game. Koff tells me as long as Ring of Honor stays true to its brand, the product will thrive no matter who's on the roster. Still, it has to be frustrating to watch the stars you've created consistently run off to the bright lights. Koff knows ROH will never be able to catch up with the capital and mythology of WWE, but he's doing his best to change the culture.
"There was a time when the goal of all of our stars was to work for us and hope to get called by [WWE,] and throughout my time here there was never a moment where I'd say, 'Don't do it,'" Koff says. "I'd never try to stop anyone who thought they could do better for their families or for their careers. In 2015, what's happened is that they've made offers to some of our people, and I respect that, but we were able to match those offers. They'd rather stay here than go there."
You can see the effects of Koff's influence already. After founder Rob Feinstein relinquished control of the company in 2004 amid a very damning sex controversy, ownership passed to Cary Silkin. Silkin ran the promotion as best he could while balancing a day job, but was certainly relieved to transfer the company's assets to Sinclair Broadcasting – where Koff is an executive – in 2011. Since their acquisition, Ring of Honor started producing a real television show, available in homes across America, and in 2014 the promotion put on its very first pay-per-view; Best in the World, a far cry from the underground tapes and mail-order DVDs it used to subsist on. That same year the company introduced War of the Worlds, a yearly supershow with New Japan Pro-Wrestling that engineers dream matches that previously existed in only the most optimistic fantasy booking. Right now ROH stands as probably the best pure wrestling promotion in the world. It's growing up, right before our eyes.
"Anybody in finance would've told me to close [Ring of Honor] in 2006, but between a love of the product, ego, pride and knowing we had something here, I kept it going," Silkin says. "I'm the 'ambassador' now. A lot of people still think I'm the owner, and it's nice to be recognized, but a lot of fans will also come up to me and thank me for keeping the company alive. When I come to a show now, I'm like the family dog who everyone likes and who gets a little food under the table. But when the show is over? I can leave and not worry about the financial hurricane."
Ring of Honor will always be vulnerable to poaching – that's an inevitable part of this business – but it's also getting better at protecting its assets. The best examples of this are probably the Young Bucks. Brothers Matt and Nick Jackson are easily the most adored non-WWE tag-team in the world – known for their charisma, ability and willingness to superkick anyone that stands in their way. They're so in-demand on the indie circuit that last year, Squared Circle Wrestling booked a show that was aptly titled "We Booked This Show Because It Was Literally The Only Available Date For The Young Bucks."
This attention made them the hottest free agents in wrestling, drawing eyes from WWE, TNA and every other major promotion under the sun. But when it came time to sign a contract, they decided to stick with Ring of Honor. Why? Simply put, they said it was the best deal.
"[Ring of Honor] lets us wrestle with our hair down," Nick Jackson says. "They let us do whatever we want. It's friendly and competitive, and we don't have agents breathing down our neck telling us what to do and what not to do. And when we do have an agent, all they're gonna say is, 'Hey Bucks, go be the Young Bucks.'"
It's a refrain you hear all up and down the Ring of Honor roster. The people who work here deeply, deeply believe in this company. It's a place where they can express themselves, advertise themselves and now, more than ever, support themselves.
"I've had the privilege of working for a few different companies," says current ROH champion Jay Lethal. "But in Ring of Honor the atmosphere is stress-free. At any job, if you're stressed your performance will suffer. In most promotions they'll tell you who to be and how to act, but here they want you to feel a part of what you're doing, because if you're not a part of it you won't put your heart in soul in it."
"The energy that the fans and the people in the back bring to [Ring of Honor] is incredible," says the wild-haired, wild-eyed Dalton Castle, one of ROH's up-and-coming stars. "It's such a fun place to be. It's one of the few shows you can go to that remind you why people love wrestling."
It's really difficult to be a full-time professional wrestler. Honestly, it's probably easier to make it as a rock star. There are a very limited number of slots, and even if you do manage to snag one, you're looking at a lonely, grueling life on the road. Ring of Honor's emergence is making the industry more colorful, but it's also making sure a few more people get to do what they love for a living.
"I care about this talent. I need them for years, I don't need them for months," Koff says. "In the case of the Young Bucks, they were working 30 to 40 indie dates a year, putting their bodies on the line, and they both have young families, I'm concerned about that. I want them to be home with their babies. I can provide them a living that compensates them for that and gives them exclusivity to me, I just think that's good business sense."
And business seems to be booming. Last December, I sat backstage in the 2300 Arena, the same venue ECW claimed as its own during the Nineties. I was here for Final Battle, ROH's year-capping PPV, and the card is absolutely stacked. Young Bucks, Briscoes, Kyle O'Reilly, Roderick Strong, Adam Cole – it's the sort of show that makes an obsessive salivate, but if you're smart enough to be here you probably don't need anyone's convincing. Inside, the talent is working through any last-minute spots, while outside, a frosty line of humanity stretches around the block. The generations might change, but the cult certainly doesn't.
In the first match of the night I watch those heroic Young Bucks chop their way through the deranged, steel-toed Briscoe Brothers, only to be defeated by the chickenshit carpetbagging of the All Night Express. The crowd, appropriately, addresses this victory with a lockstep chorus of "YOU STILL SUCK, YOU STILL SUCK." An hour later, Dalton Castle won back the respect of his "boys" – literally a set of twins that walk him to the ring like Las Vegas showgirls – in a slugfest against the self-proclaimed "Last Real Man" Silas Young. There's also, um, Cheeseburger. A wrestler named Cheeseburger. He looks like he weighs 120 pounds soaking wet and beats a man three times his size. With every bump, every lariat, every weird, nonconformist character, you can feel the wild, un-sponsored spirit of ECW smile beneath the mat.
Can Ring of Honor keep that spirit alive? Will it maintain its momentum? It's hard to know for sure. But it's certainly important. Pro wrestling can be a difficult thing to love. It is often stupid, offensive, boring and hackneyed. Ring of Honor is usually none of those things. It's living proof that if you put in the effort, you'll always find a warehouse, a ring and a ton of kids willing to watch. It doesn't matter if it's 1996 of 2016; as long as Ring of Honor is here, pro wrestling is pure.
Ring Of Honor's 14th Anniversary show airs live on PPV Friday, February 26 at 9 p.m. ET